In our graphic design studio, clients often ask about changing colors for their materials, what colors go together and when to use what colors. So we decided to write a few blog posts about it, to pass on some of the knowledge we have accumulated. Let’s start with some color basics:

Color Basics: The Color Wheel

Sir Isaac Newton created the first color wheel based on spectral hues and the mixture of lights. Today, we mostly study the color wheel from the subtractive method. It is an arrangement of hues in a chromatic manner that makes it possible for us to understand the relationships between colors.


Primary Colors

The three primary colors are Red, Yellow, and Blue. They cannot be formed by the mixing of any other colors. In addition, when you mix them in different variations, you get all other colors.


Secondary Colors

These are the colors that are produced by mixing neighboring primary colors.
Red + Yellow = Orange
Yellow + Blue = Green
Blue + Red = Purple


Tertiary Colors

By continuing the mixing process, but now including the secondary colors, we arrive at the tertiary colors.



Color Basics: Additive and Subtractive Color


This model is based on the mixing of light. The three primary colors of this system are Red, Green, and Blue (RGB). When we see color created by any light source, like a TV, computer monitor, or a projector, the three colors mix together at different levels to create every other color. If you mix Red, Green, and Blue all together, you get pure white. Every time we design for web or mobile, since the final outcome will be a screen, we work in this RGB mode.



This model is based on the mixing of pigment. From finger painting to magazine prints, any color that is on a physical surface follows this color system. Traditionally, particularly when thinking in terms of painting, the primary colors are Red, Yellow, and Blue. Most painter’s color wheels would follow that system. However, with the advances in printing technology, the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (CMYK) system provided more options for printers. To avoid any confusion Black is referred to by the letter ‘K’ so as not to be mixed up with Blue. When designing for anything that will be printed (magazine, posters, banner etc.), it is important to set up your workspace in CMYK.

Color basics: Schemes

Color schemes are established systems that can come in handy while choosing colors for a project. Designers choose to use a specific scheme depending on the desired effect they want the colors to have.

Complimentary Colors

This is a set of two colors that lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel. These colors produce a very high contrast effect. For example, the complimentary color to Orange is Blue.



This is a set of colors that lie right next to each together on the color wheel. If you use them together it creates a smoother and calmer combination. Typically, one color out of this scheme dominates and the other colors support or accent it. Orange-Red and Orange-Yellow create an analogous scheme with Orange.


Split Complimentary

I like to think of this as a combination of the complimentary and analogous Schemes. This color scheme has a similar high-impact as the complementary color scheme but is a little more harmonious like the analogous scheme. You form a split compliment by using one color and the two colors on either side of its compliment. In the case of Orange, its compliment is Blue and the two colors on either side of Blue are Blue-Purple and Blue-Green. In this way, Orange, Blue-Purple and Blue-Green form a split compliment.


These colors lie evenly spaced out and can be located by creating an equilateral triangle through the color wheel. This scheme tends to be vibrant and dynamic and it is usually a good idea again to use one as a dominant color and the other two as supporting colors. Orange, Green, and Purple form a triadic color scheme.


color basics: Shade, Tint and Tone

Another way to get more variations of a single color is to add black, grey, or white to any color on the color wheel. Each color on the color wheel is a specific hue. When the hues are modified in this manner, they become desaturated and they lose some dominance or intensity of that specific hue.


When you add a percentage of white to a hue, this forms a tint. This lightens and makes a hue paler. It does not mean that the color gets brighter, because the adding of white also has a desaturating effect.


Adding a percentage of grey (black and white) is to a hue creates a tone. This tones down or dulls the intensity of a hue. Since both black and white are added to a hue in this situation, tones tend to have more complex qualities.


Shades are formed a percentage of black is added to a hue. Shades tend to be darker and more intense than the original hue. Depending on the amount of black added, the color can be just a little darker that the original hue or very dark and almost black.

We hope you enjoyed these color basics.